EDITOR'S NOTE: As part of Page 2's series on Athleticism and Sports Degree of Difficulty, we assigned several of our writers to experience first-hand the difficulty -- or ease -- of competing with and against elite athletes in a number of sports. In this third installment, Eric Neel tries out the sport of surfing.
CRESCENT CITY, Calif. -- I am lying on what feels like a perilously thin and narrow fiberglass board in the middle of the Pacific. Actually, that's not true. I'm not lying on it, I'm flailing on it. My arms are turning like wet-pasta propellers, clawing for every inch of momentum they can get. My lungs are collapsing, my eyes are burning, and the little voice in my head is screaming, "You idiot! What are you doing out here."
I am lying on my buddy Neil's sunkissed yellow longboard in the shores off Crescent City, Calif. I'm pushing myself outside the surf, coming up and over the waves like I had a dorsal fin and a bottle nose. The early light of day shimmers and shines through the mist hugging the water, and a line of pelicans streams low and quiet from behind a curl.
For what seems like forever, I'm six feet under, with the weight and roar of a wave pressing down on me. Air is a distant memory, light is a dream I once had. My hands have gone Chicken Little, covering my head, waiting for a crushing blow from above, and my legs are cutting every which way but loose.
For just a moment, I'm sliding down the face of a wave, weightless, silent, lifted. Air is something I cut through, light is the glow coming off my smile. I don't feel my hands or feet, I just feel my breath.
If you're new to it like I am, this is surfing: equal parts suffering and sublimity. You work your tail off fighting the waves and you are rewarded with gorgeous sights and transcendent feelings. Sometimes you get tossed about like socks in a dryer and sometimes you're propelled like a bird in flight.
Neil and I are sitting in his truck, watching the waves break, and he says, "The thing about surfing is, the waves keep coming."
When my first lesson is over an hour later, it's a toss-up as to whether that's a curse or a blessing.
We bodysuit up on the north coast of California. The water tops out at 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Booties and hoods are a must.
First Neil lays his board down on the sand and demonstrates the quick push-up you do to get up.
Easy enough. I mimic him, except I lead with my left foot.
"'Goofy,'" Neil says. "That's what they call that stance."
Amen brother. I'm wearing a suit made of rubber doing push-ups on a beachbound board. I'd say goofy about covers it.
So then I walk into the surf carrying a big banana beast of a board Neil made himself.
"Just get the feel of the water," he says. "Get a sense of how it moves and where it breaks."
I'm doing that, and feeling cool. My eyes are on the bright blue horizon and I'm letting waves crash around my legs free and easy.
"This is nice," I say. "It's beautiful out here."
"Yeah," he says. "You got a great day for it."
At a certain point, the waves get too high to navigate on foot and we toss the boards a little out in front of us and lay down.
"Now we paddle out," he says.
It sounds so easy. Even the word "paddle" has a kind of innocence about it.
It ain't. It's brutal. Paddling uses muscles you don't use to do anything else. It uses muscles you don't know you have, and if you're me, in this ocean, on this day, it uses 'em up.
In a hurry.
The waves are beating me about the face. I swear they're laughing at me, and the burning in my chest is a reminder of how big the water is and how small I am. Melville wrote "Moby Dick" to communicate just this idea. Fighting the water with arms too short and too weak to box with Gaia, I'm thinking, "Why the hell couldn't I have stayed home and read a book this morning?!" I'm thinking this degree-of-difficulty project is a very bad idea, and I'm thinking this is most definitely, most most definitely my first and last day as a surfer.
Where, I wonder, is the sweet swish and glide I've seen in movies? Why don't I hear Dick Dale? Why aren't bits of lingo like "stoked" leaping from my mouth?
Oh, yeah, it's because my mouth is full of frothing salt water.
And then, just when I'm ready to give up, we're on the outside of the surf, sitting on our boards rising and falling with the swells.
There's a unique kind of calm that comes with this. I'm not on the water so much as I'm in it. I can feel myself needing and wanting to surrender to its rhythms and surges. I suddenly understand how people come to think of the sport as some sort of spiritual endeavor.
Every sport I've ever played involves a letting go. You have to ease up to gear up. You have to breathe to bat a ball and chill out to find the flow of five guys on a basketball court.
In some ways, this is the hidden difficulty in our degree-of-difficulty project: Athletes who've trained themselves to perform precise, complicated, and sometimes grueling activities also have to learn when and how to do nothing but just be.
Enough Zen and the art of surfing.
"Now for the fun part," Neil says.
He shows me how to turn the board so the nose faces the shore, and we watch for a wave big and clean enough to ride.
"Paddle!" he shouts.
That word again.
But this time I'm not David. I'm Goliath. The water's at my back and the board takes off.
It's sex, it's chocolate, it's a baby's laugh, and a perfect sunset.
I'm not standing on the board, I'm just riding belly-down, singing "Good Day Sunshine" and hoping it never ends.
Eventually I "pearl," a harmless, poetic little term for getting your weight too far forward and the nose of your board too far down. It ends in a tumble off the board.
I could care less. I can't wait to get back out and ride another one. I'm shouting things to Neil that can't be translated, things that feature giddy bat-like squeals and embarrassing, Mark Madsen-like shouts.
Neil smiles and nods. In addition to being a very fine surfer, he's very good people.
My euphoria lasts about seven seconds. The paddle pain that replaces it is with me even as I write this five days later.
Eventually, though, I make it out again. And again. And again. Each time I struggle out, and each time I go out of my ever-lovin' mind taking the joy ride in.
And on my fifth trip, I decide to try to stand.
There's a leap in logic in the standing, a mental block you have to push past. See, surfing, on the face of it, on the face of a wave, makes no sense at all. Like flying, it's a crazy idea that just happens to be possible. No one should ever have thought of it, really, but they did.
And because they did, I have this last little embarrassing report to file:
I ate it trying to get up. Big time. I pearled, I weebled, I wobbled, I wiped out. The board went six feet in the air looking to come down on my skull, which, thankfully, was hiding out down by the bottom, taking on water and sand and god knows what else.
Goofy isn't doing a push-up on a board on the sand, goofy is doing a push-up on a board in the water, going crazy fast and out of control.
I didn't get up. I got down. Way down. And on my way down I felt a twinge, a little piano string break, in my back.
I floated in the froth for a bit, whupped, done for the day.
The half of my brain that processes pain said, "Get your sorry ass out of the water and get in the truck and don't ever come back."
The half of my brain that experiences pleasure said, "Yeah, you're done for the day, but this was one great day."
Surfing is so hard, I hesitated before deciding which half my heart would listen to.
But it's such a gas, in the end, I couldn't hear the pain. I could feel it, but I couldn't hear it, you know what I'm saying?
I'm getting me a board and a wetsuit ASAP is what I'm saying.
Just as soon as I can move again, that is.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.